The Internal Revenue Service left Washington abuzz over the weekend with a Friday admission that it singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2012 election cycle.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) is expected to release a report on the matter sometime this week, with the findings based on an audit the agency conducted at the request of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Washington Post and other media outlets have obtained details of that report. but many questions remain about the targeting actions. We’ll get to those below, but first let’s review a few things about this development.
Lois G. Lerner. who heads the IRS division that reviews tax-exemption applications, has described the targeting efforts as an “absolutely inappropriate” means of dealing with the high volume of applications after the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision, which allowed corporations and labor unions to raise and spend unlimited sums, as well as to register for tax-exempt status as long as their “primary purpose” was not political.
Documents obtained from the upcoming report show that Lerner’s division repeatedly redefined what types of groups it should single out for special scrutiny.
The targeting of conservative groups started around March of 2010, according to the audit documents. But Lerner, a Democrat, “instructed that the criteria be immediately revised” after a briefing on the matter in late June of 2011.
The IRS adopted a more generic set of standards the next month, but it changed the criteria again in January 2012, deciding to look at “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement,” according to the audit documents.
In May 2012, the agency finally settled on a more neutral standard, targeting groups “with indicators of significant amounts of political campaign intervention,” the documents said.
Now for those lingering questions.
How high did this go?
No media outlets have provided an answer yet as to whether anyone in the White House or the Treasury Department, which oversees the IRS, knew about the targeting.
The White House has simply said it supports more formal investigations and disciplinary action, if necessary. Lerner has stated that she did not contact the Obama administration about the matter.
Did the IRS target liberal groups as well?
Documents from the inspector general’s report show that the IRS singled out groups with names containing “tea party,” “patriot,” and “9/12 Project,” as well as nonprofit organizations that criticized the government and sought to educate Americans about the U.S. Constitution
. (9/12 Project was founded by right-wing political commentator Glenn Beck).
Those search criteria match the profile of conservative groups that were active during the 2012 election, but the latter two don’t necessarily rule out liberal organizations. For example, the left-leaning group Patriot Majority could have raised a flag, either by accident or deliberately.
The IRS targeted 298 groups for special scrutiny, according to a congressional aide with knowledge of the report. Seventy-two had “tea party” in their title, while 13 had “patriot” and 11 had “9/12,” the aide said.
The audit documents do not expressly state whether the IRS targeted liberal applicants, but it’s possible.
Why didn’t officials acknowledge targeting when lawmakers inquired?
At least three House Republicans asked the IRS about its policies toward reviewing tax-exemption applications after complaints that the agency was singling out conservative groups for intense scrutiny.
Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sent queries to Lerner from the Oversight and Government Reform committee, while Charles Boustany (R-La.), a member of the Ways and Means committee, demanded answers from the IRS.
On March 27, 2012, Issa and Jordan asked Lerner how the IRS selected groups for special scrutiny and which organizations were chosen.
Lerner’s reply didn’t mention the targeting of conservative groups — even though the audit documents show she knew about it by then — or name any entities that the IRS had singled out. Instead, she said identifying the targeted applicants that were ultimately approved would require additional work — a “manual review of each file” — and that IRS code prohibited her from providing information about groups that were not approved.
A timeline provided by the Ways and Means committee indicates that the IRS made no mention of targeting conservative groups in five separate responses to inquiries by Boustany.
Did the IRS commissioner talk to Lerner before testifying to Congress?
The Washington Post posed this question to the IRS, but the agency did not respond. Why does it matter?
In March 2012, IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman testified on this issue before a House Ways and Means subcommittee, adamantly denying that the IRS singled out groups for special scrutiny. “There’s absolutely no targeting,” he said. “This is the kind of back and forth that happens to people [who apply for tax-exempt status.]”
That testimony came nearly 10 months after Lerner instructed her division to change its search criteria. Had Shulman consulted her, he might have known about the agency’s targeting — assuming Lerner would not withhold that information.
Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.